Cobbling a Media Empire in Kabul
The mullahs weren't happy and called for boycotts.
(FORTUNE Magazine) - SAAD MOHSENI WORKS THE departure lounge at Dubai's Terminal 2 like a Davos pro. Okay, this isn't exactly the Swiss Alps--it's 100° F in the desert outside--but 6 A.M. is the best time to meet the real road warriors of world business, people like Mohseni, Central Asia's newest media czar.
Flights to Iraq and Afghanistan leave from here at about the same time and from adjacent gates. The line for Baghdad is full of men in fatigues heading off to war. But half the passengers on the Ariana Airlines flight to Kabul are in suits, looking to make a killing in business. "The lounge here is the best place to get face time with the people that matter in my country," says Mohseni, as he dashes off to embrace Afghanistan's national security advisor, then to greet a posse of Canadians who run Afghanistan's biggest mobile-phone network.
These days Afghan leaders are just as keen to embrace Mohseni, 39, whose radio and TV stations have positioned him as his country's Rupert Murdoch. A former stockbroker who spent most of his life exiled in Australia, Mohseni and other Western-educated members of the Afghan diaspora like him are his homeland's greatest hope. "Just in Dubai alone, Afghans are worth probably $5 billion," Mohseni says. "If they invested just a fraction of that, we would see the benefits immediately."
Investment on that scale is still a long way off in a country where poppy cultivation is the biggest foreign-exchange earner. But Mohseni has put about $500,000 of his own money where his mouth is. He and three younger siblings left lucrative Australian careers to return to Kabul in 2002 and set up Afghanistan's first private media empire. Today, Mohseni's Moby Capital Group employs 220 people, many of whom didn't have jobs before 9/11. "'Empire' is perhaps overstating things," says Mohseni, "but we have grown very quickly and become very popular. And importantly for this country, we are independent."
Mohseni's first venture was Arman FM, a spicy mix of news and music in a format adapted from Western-style radio. Arman was an instant hit, filling a void for entertainment after years of Taliban asceticism. The station didn't break five times a day for prayer and, shockingly, had female deejays. Kabul's conservative mullahs weren't happy and occasionally called for boycotts. But three years later it's impossible to get into a Kabul taxi and not have the driver rocking to a Bollywood favorite coming from a car radio tuned to Arman.
On the way to Mohseni's office in a converted villa in Kabul's suburbs, visitors run a gauntlet of tanks--NATO's peacekeeping headquarters and the U.S. embassy are a few blocks away--and men toting AK-47s. "We've had our difficult moments," says Mohseni, who travels around Kabul in an SUV with an armed bodyguard.
It was the arrival last year of Mohseni's Tolo TV that really showed that Afghanistan was intent on changing. There are only about five million TV sets in the country, but Mohseni says about 60% of them are tuned to Tolo (Dari for "dawn") at some point during the day. One of five TV stations in Afghanistan, Tolo's mix of news, Oprah-like chat shows, and documentaries has quickly become a must-see for the country's 30 million people. There's even an Afghan version of American Idol called Afghan Star.
Tolo has broken new ground in this socially conservative country. One reality show plucks a Kabul kebab-seller from the street and gives him a shave and a change of clothes before putting him back at his stall a changed man. It's fun to watch, but there is a deeper message for Afghans--that it's okay to be who you want, a human right denied them by the Taliban and the warlords who trashed the country during the past 20 years. Some of those warlords have appeared on Tolo's current-affairs show, Hot Talk, where Afghanistan's version of Jim Lehrer plies them with tough questions. Another show has examined issues like pedophilia, forced marriages, and the abuse of women. "Some of these programs have caused pain," admits Mohseni. "But remember that we as a country haven't yet reconciled the evils of our past."
The channel is also watched by foreigners for breaking news. It was first with the story of the May kidnapping of aid workers, and it announced the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador before Washington did.
Afghanistan's media sector is one of the few areas of the economy that's thriving. Mohseni says the country's advertising spending will run to $10 million this year, of which his group will get about half. "In Western terms, that's nine-tenths of nothing," says Mohseni. "But remember that $10 million didn't exist in Taliban times." He expects the figure to rise to $50 million to $60 million by 2008, as more multinationals explore the market. That's beginning to happen. Coca-Cola is about to open a bottling plant in Afghanistan, and Pepsi is soon to follow. But the big prize for Mohseni might be across the border. Tolo's programming is mostly in Dari, a Persian dialect close to the languages used in Iran and the former Soviet republics, and it is beamed via satellite across Central Asia. If Mohseni can get a piece of the region's $800 million ad market, his gamble might really pay off.